In the Words of Frederick Douglass: Quotations from Liberty's Champion

By Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2013 | Go to article overview

In the Words of Frederick Douglass: Quotations from Liberty's Champion


Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


In the Words of Frederick Douglass: Quotations from Liberty's Champion. Edited by John R. McKivigan and Heather L. Kaufman. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2012. vii + 256 pp. $22.95 hardcover.

In the Words of Frederick Douglass is a collection of approximately seven hundred quotations from one of the most famous African American leaders of the nineteenth century. According to the editors, John R. McKivigan (the Project Director and Editor of the Frederick Douglass Papers) and Heather L. Kaufman (a research assistant on the editorial staff of the Frederick Douglass Papers), the specific quotations that they decided to showcase are "representative of the breadth and strength of his [Douglass'] intellect and interests as well as the eloquence with which he expressed them" (xix). McKivigan and Kaufman carefully selected quotations that they believe speak to a wide range of important issues germane to U.S. history and African American life and culture from the late years of the antebellum era until the mid-1890s. They also suggest that "Frederick Douglass's words have at least as much relevance to twenty-first-century readers as those of the first generation of American founders" (xviii).

McKivigan and Kaufman sub-divide the numerous quotations of varying lengths into 113 logical topics conveniently presented in alphabetical order from "Abolition" to "Women," more than a few of which have sub-categories. Spanning from the early 1840s until 1894, the quotations are extracted from various speeches, correspondences, editorials, essays, and his three widely read autobiographies. The shortest quote, from a speech in 1880, is four words in length and sounds like an African proverb on patience: "Great bodies move slowly" (231). The longest quote is twenty-seven lines from an 1844 letter to abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison reflecting upon to the hypocrisy of segregation in northern churches.

In addition to containing profound quotations from Douglass, In the Words of Frederick Douglass includes a "Foreword" by Douglass scholar John Stauffer, a "Preface," a straight forward introductory sketch of Douglass' life and work, a brief chronology, a "Note on Editorial Method, a selected bibliography, and an index. Stauffer praises McKivigan's and Kaufman's volume and comments on the "silencing" and canonization of Douglass' thought during the twentieth century. Further, he believes that by reading Douglass' words, Americans could be motivated to change the world they live in. "Douglass' words continue to serve as inspiration," Stauffer observes, "Indeed they can inspire us, as readers and citizens, to bind up the nation's wounds, complete the unfinished work, and finally fulfill the ideas of freedom and equality of opportunity for all Americans" (xiv). The editors share these sentiments, concluding that Douglass' ideas are "relevant to the struggles for liberty and equality still being waged today" (37).

In the "Preface," the editors stress the usefulness of Douglass's observations to its readership in the new millennium; contextualize his position within the basics of black leadership history; and summarize the expansive body of writings that Douglass produced primary during the second half of the nineteenth century. In the brief introduction, McKivigan and Kaufman offer a succinct overview of Douglass' "remarkable life story" from his birth in February 1818 on a Maryland tobacco plantation until his death in the nation's capital on February 20, 1895. The editors demonstrate how Douglass was molded by various contexts and monumental events, including the institution of slavery, the abolitionist movement, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the first decade of the Progressive era, "the nadir" for African Americans. After formally joining the abolitionist movement two decades before the outbreak of the Civil War, Douglass soon developed into a multi-faceted and, in fact, a quintessential universal reformer, human rights activist, and politician who wore many hats and embraced many causes. All great reforms do together" (185), Douglass declared in a 1845 speech. The editors also touch upon this iconic figure's complex legacy and how he has been interpreted in different ways by divergent camps of black activists hailing from various generations.

As a tireless spokesperson for enslaved and citizenship seeking African American peoples, Douglass routinely spoke to several different audiences. In the broadest sense, his messages to whites and blacks differed, as exemplified by the quotations in In the Words of Frederick Douglass. Emphasizing the hypocrisy of American ideals of liberty, freedom, and inalienable and God-given rights vis-a-vis blacks, he often indicated slaveholders, the U.S. government, and whites whose actions did not challenge the racialized status quo and the oppression of his people. In his famous, often-cited 1852 speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?," Douglass underscored: "Fellow citizens! I will not enlarge further on your national inconsistencies. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home" (48-49). Commenting on secession in 1861, he noted in a speech that a "man cannot be a slaveholder without being a traitor to humanity and a rebel against the law and government of the ever-living God" (75). At the same time, he celebrated blacks' accomplishments and routinely encouraged them to push on despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that blocked their well-trodden paths towards freedom. In an 1863 editorial, Douglass remarked: "Colored people have had something to do with almost everything of vital importance in the life and progress of this great country" (53). In a speech fourteen years later, he declared, "We negroes are an irrepressible people, and there is no keeping us back" (54). Douglass also consistently instructed blacks to work hard as epitomized in a 1893 speech aptly entitled "Self-Made Men." He remarked: "[A]dvancement is achievable only through patient, enduring, honest, unremitting, and indefatigable work ... we may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!" (230).

While Douglass' thoughts in this volume touch upon many subjects and issues, several themes seem to prevail, at least to this reader. These include self-help, self-determination, and racial uplift and pride; constitutional and equal rights for blacks; self-preservation, survival, and resistance; and faith in God and a brighter future, courage, and perseverance. Subject matter that unsurprisingly receive a lot of attention include the institution of slavery and the abolition movement, temperance, women's rights, education, politics, emancipation, racism, suffrage, and historical personalities, namely John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, and Abraham Lincoln.

The stories of Douglass' direct resistance to slavery are well known and his autobiographies--classic slave narratives--can certainly be read as explicit rebuttals to America's institutionalized anti-black racial order. Nonetheless, several quotes from this volume highlight Douglass' militancy and radical rhetoric and deserve mention, especially given the recent heightened interest in the history of the African American tradition of armed self-defense and the unapologetic oratory of Black Power movement activists. Four years after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was enacted, Douglass wrote in his newspaper: "The True Remedy for the Fugitive Slave Bill [was a] good revolver, a steady hand and a determination to shoot down any man attempting to kidnap" (111). Shortly after John Brown's death, Douglass reiterated: "The only way to make the Fugitive Slave a dead letter, is to make a few dead slave-catchers. There is no need to kill them either--shoot them in the legs, and send them to the South [as] living epistles of the free gospel preached here in the North" (51). Foreshadowing Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" mantra and the rhetoric of his Black Power era progeny, in 1881 Douglass justified violence in the act of liberation: If a slave killed his master, or struck down his overseer, or set fire to his master's dwelling, or committed any violence or crime, out of the common way, it was certain to be said that such a crime was the legitimate fruit of the abolition movement" (83).

In 1906, amateur historian Booker T. Washington produced a hagiographic biography of Frederick Douglass entitled Frederick Douglass. About four decades later, professionally trained historian Benjamin Quarles published the first major scholarly biography on Douglass under the same title. After Quarles' study was released in 1948, many more biographies on Douglass as well as numerous collected writings by Douglass--including exhaustive The Frederick Douglass Papers in three series (1979-2011)--were published. Unlike these works, rigorous researchers will not use In the Words of Frederick Douglass extensively. Instead, it is an ideal book for introducing undergraduates, general readers, and even high school students to Frederick Douglass' life and thought. In one sense, this book resembles Black-Belt Diamonds: Gems from the Speeches, Addresses and Talks to Students of Booker T. Washington selected and arranged by clubwoman Victoria Earle Matthews in 1898 and later re-released in 1995 as Black Diamonds: The Wisdom of Booker T. Washington, Eric V. Copage's Black Pearls: Daily Meditations, Affirmations, and Inspirations for African-Americans (1993), the King family's The Martin Luther King, Jr. Companion: Quotations from the Speeches, Essays and Books of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1998), and Joslyn Pine's Book of African American Quotations (2011). Like these compilations, McKivigan's and Kaufman's engaging edited volume will inspire its wide range of readers.

Pero Gaglo Dagbovie

Professor of History

Michigan State University

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